Unrest isn’t ‘Spreading’ from Chechnya Across the North Caucasus; It’s Been There All Along

December 7, 2014
Press Building on fire in Grozny December 4, 2014. Photo by Reuters.

Staunton, December 6 – The violence in Chechnya this week has led many Russian and Western commentators to suggest that the unrest there is about to spread to other parts of the North Caucasus, but such analyses are wrong: unrest throughout the region has been there all along. It has only been exacerbated in recent times by Moscow’s own policies.

The notion that militants in Chechnya are triggering resistance and violence elsewhere is an old trope, one that goes back to at least the time of the first post-Soviet Chechen war and that has been promoted by Moscow because it distracts attention from the multiple challenges Russia faces in the region and from the ways Moscow’s policies have made them worse.

This ideological notion works because tragically few people in the world pay much attention to the North Caucasus – or indeed increasingly to anywhere else – unless there is dramatic violence and thus most have no idea about is happening when the violence is less dramatic or when it is only simmering at the point of explosion.

In recent months, there has been violence in many parts of the North Caucasus and Russian officials have even declared “counter-terrorist” actions against it in Dagestan in particular. But such actions and responses have not attracted the attention of the media in Moscow and hence the world as did the attack in Grozny.

There are exceptions to this rule and there are analysts who have continued to track the violence across the North Caucasus. Among them is Israeli expert Avraam Shmulyevich, and his conclusion is that Russia is on the road to losing the entire North Caucasus whose population remains distrustful of and angry at Moscow.

Some Russian commentators are beginning to take that possibility seriously as well. In Novaya Gazeta November 4, Olga Bobrova says that the events in Grozny show that Russia now faces “a test” of its own territorial integrity having called that into question in the case of Ukraine.

Russians have gotten used to the idea that there is violence and a challenge to the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but given the diet they are fed by Moscow television, few of them find it easy to believe that the same kind of violence and the same kind of challenge could exist in the North Caucasus and be directed against them.

The methods in which Moscow has placed so much confidence, including the massive use of violence, “do not work,” she argues. And even the fact that Russian forces once again have destroyed the militants doesn’t vitiate that. As Bobrova points out, the militants came to Grozny “in order to die,” and against such people, Moscow’s methods are ineffective.

Even more, what has happened in Grozny and what is happening elsewhere in the North Caucasus raise a larger question for Russians: How are the pro-Moscow fighters in the Donetsk Peoples Republic “any better” that the anti-Moscow militants in the North Caucasus? “No one,” she says, “is offering an answer to such questions.”

Russian commentator Andrey Piontkovsky says that it shouldn’t be “a secret for anyone” that the war in Chechnya hasn’t ended. Ramzan Kadyrov doesn’t control very much of his territory, and there are many people in his own army who earlier fought against Moscow.

What Moscow achieved with its two wars is anything but a peace. Instead, there has been “only a temporary compromise. Kadyrov concluded the peace not even with Russia but with Putin personally. The Russian president in fact recognized his defeat, and Kadyrov declared his loyalty to Putin” in exchange for a great deal of money and a free hand.

The hullabaloo that has been raised around the Grozny events reflects the fact that they took place in Grozny, the Chechen capital, Piontkovsky says. Few have noticed that “in Dagestan, similar events are happening almost every day” because the Russian and international media simply don’t report that.

Today, “the war in the North Caucasus has not been concluded. It has simply taken on different forms,” he says. And those may be even more of a problem than the earlier ones. In the 1990s, Moscow faced almost exclusively ethnic challenges. Now it faces an Islamist one. But however that may be, the region remains to this day “in a constant state of war.”

Moreover, there is every reason to believe that the situation from Moscow’s point of view is only going to get worse. Because of new budgetary stringencies that have arisen as a result of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, Moscow doesn’t have as much money to send to the North Caucasus elites, and they in turn won’t have as much to buy off the opposition.

Even as the Moscow media were filled with pictures of burning buildings in Grozny, the Russian government announced that it was going to save money by cutting funding to Ingushetia by 3.4 billion rubles ($US 64.5 million) in the next budgetary cycle.